In prisons and jails, lack of testing is a big problem

When inmates are released from facilities with known infections, they can spread coronavirus in their homes and communities

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari/PA Post
Happy Tuesday, Contexters. Today, we continue a discussion about a vulnerable population that’s become the poster child for inadequate state responses to the coronavirus — inmates at prisons and, of course, the guards and other staff who work around them. TL;DR: As jails and prisons with confirmed COVID-19 cases release prisoners without testing them, there’s  a worry that communities could be put at risk. —Joseph Darius Jaafari, staff writer

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Protesters call for officials to release people from jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers in response to the coronavirus, as they demonstrate outside City Hall in Philadelphia, Monday, March 30, 2020. (Matt Rourke / AP Photo)

State and county correctional facilities across the country are some of the places hit hardest by the coronavirus — close quarters, overcrowding and shared services like food trays and showers make it easy for the virus to spread among inmates and correctional officers alike.

In Pennsylvania, that’s no different. Two weeks ago, for example, State Correctional Institution Huntingdon reported 51 cases of coronavirus among prisoners.By last Friday, it had 143.

State facilities — such as SCI Camp Hill and SCI Phoenix, and county jails, including Philadelphia’s and Montgomery’s — report infection rates soaring above the overall numbers for the counties they’re located in.

And that’s without mass testing, which is proving to be the biggest problem facing correctional leaders.

As inmates complete their sentences, post bail or are released on parole, they are not being tested before exiting prison, according to a handful of interviews I conducted over the past month with inmates at county and state prisons. The only testing these men reported was having their temperature checked as they left.

“That makes no sense for people who are asymptomatic,” said one inmate at SCI Phoenix who is expected to be granted parole this Thursday. He asked to remain anonymous for fear he would be denied release if he publicly criticized Department of Corrections testing efforts.

In Lebanon County Correctional Facility, Joe Bauch, who was released two weeks ago after the jail announced its first four cases of COVID-19, said he wasn’t tested for the virus. He said he had asked for one — he interacted with those who came in contact with the inmates who tested positive — but said the jail refused.

“They didn’t do anything,” he said. “I’m walking out of there and possibly infecting my wife or others.”

Officials from the facility did not respond to a request for comment.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections says it’s focusing its testing on symptomatic individuals. But without mass testing, it’s unlikely we know the full scope of the problem inside prisons and jails. All we can do is make a guess based on examples from prisons in other states where tests found a few cases quickly spread to many more.

We know that the state now has the ability to test many more people than in the early days of the outbreak. After all, the Pa. health department is rolling out a mass testing effort covering every nursing home in the state.

So why are inmates with known exposure to the virus not being tested, especially those inmates who are scheduled for release? After all, they will return to their loved ones and communities, potentially spreading the virus as they go about their lives.

Read our story here, and if you have a confidential tip on testing within prisons, send it through our Listening Post here.

Related reporting: 

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Courtesy Zach Schrum

A truck and canine associate belonging to Schrum Family Roofing, a company based in Lancaster County. (Courtesy Zach Schrum)

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